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Paralympian and entrepreneur Liz Johnson shares her career advice

·8-min read
Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

Liz Johnson is a multiple gold medal winning Paralympian. The British swimmer has competed in three Paralympic games, including London 2012, and is one of very few swimmers to have won gold in the Paralympics, world and European championships.

Since retiring from swimming in 2016, after two decades in the pool, Liz has set up two organisations which aim to close the disability employment gap. The Ability People is the first disability-led employment consultancy, and Podium is a jobs marketplace which connects freelancers with disabilities to flexible work which meets their needs. In 2018, she was listed as one of the BBC's 100 Women - its annual list of influential and inspiring women.

Here, she shares her insight into what she has learnt along the way...

The three most important qualities for a good leader are…

"Self-awareness. Leaders are used to thinking about others, and often less good at checking in with themselves. But self-awareness is hugely valuable. Only when leaders know themselves are they able to maximise their strengths, enlist support when needed, and know when to take a break.

"Secondly, Communication skills. Growing up with cerebral palsy taught me early on that each of our individual needs aren’t always obvious to others. I learnt that you need to communicate what you want and need in order to obtain the tools and opportunities to succeed. Leaders must be good speakers and listeners, so that staff feel empowered to communicate what they need to achieve their ambitions.

"And finally, flexibility. It’s no good listening to individual staff members’ needs if you’re not willing to accommodate them. This might mean changing how you hire, making physical adaptations to workplaces for disabled employees, or introducing permanent remote working contracts. Just know that what each person needs to fulfil their individual potential is different and always changing; and that established ways of working aren’t always best."

My personal strength as a leader is…

"You have to be resilient in order to succeed in business and sport, and I’ve built up plenty of resilience growing up with a disability. Since society is built around ableist structures, I’ve had to overcome countless barriers, constantly problem solving, adapting and exceeding people’s expectations of me. This means I’m incredibly adaptable and can pick myself up when things don’t go to plan. I’m also not limited by other people’s perceptions of what I can achieve or who I am. As a leader it’s important to be able to lead by example in this way, keeping a cool head and handling tough situations calmly in order to signal to your team that they don’t need to worry."

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

The biggest priority for my business right now is…

"Our mission has always been to close the disability employment gap through educating organisations on Awareness of Disability, but our work to help the community access equal job opportunities has never been more urgent than it is right now. The Covid jobs crisis has left the disabled workforce in turmoil. Already twice as likely to be unemployed in the UK, people with disabilities are now also twice as likely to be made redundant due to the pandemic.

"The glimmer of light in all this is that the pandemic has paved the way for more inclusive ways of working. It’s proven that working from home can be just as effective as working from an office. For many people with disabilities, for whom inaccessible workplaces and public transport means that remote work is often the only safe option, this means they may be able to access roles that they couldn’t before. Our priority is ensuring that employers harbour lessons, cement flexible policies and build inclusive working structures so that disabled talent is not ignored or sacrificed."

The economic outlook may be uncertain, but I’m mitigating risk by…

"Diversifying our offering with a focus on remote work. Prior to the pandemic, our work through The Ability People (TAP) often had us on-site at big corporations, facilitating workshops to teach teams how to make their workplace authentically inclusive. But the pandemic triggered the need for a new, digital offering to support disabled job seekers. That’s when we set up TAP’s sister organisation: Podium. Podium is a jobs marketplace which specifically connects disabled freelancers with flexible work that they can carry out remotely."

I keep my team motivated by…

"Playing to each individual’s strengths. Ensuring that every team member is engaged in projects and work areas which they are skilled in and passionate about is the best motivator there is. Staying in touch is also key. I’ve found that the most important way to keep spirits high and staff engaged, despite us all working separately, is by communicating and staying connected. An email or Slack message isn’t always enough. For each individual team member to know that their hard work is appreciated and that support is available if they need it, a phone or video call is often best."

The hardest decision I’ve had to make as a leader was…

"When I’ve had to let someone down, or risk hurting their feelings. This is true in my swimming career and in a business setting. Sometimes, changes need to be made in line with team goals and objectives. But when these changes impact the environment we work in, or push myself and those around me out of our comfort zones, there’s always a possibility of upset. At the same time, I recognise that it gives each of us the opportunity to pursue new passions, or make improvements. Sometimes one door needs to close for another to open."

The worst mistake I’ve ever made as a leader (and the lessons I learnt from it)

"Prolonging the inevitable to preserve individual feelings. I find it difficult to let others down because I’m quite relationship-oriented in my leadership style. But I’ve learnt that being led by my feelings - and those of others - isn’t always helpful. If you need to have a tricky conversation or make a tough decision, for example, delaying it won’t change the outcome. In fact, you’ll lose time in the process and the reaction you get may even be worse as a result. As long as you communicate clearly and provide context and evidence for your reasonings, whatever they may be, it should always be possible to reach an amicable outcome."

Photo credit: Courtesy.
Photo credit: Courtesy.

An effective leader will always…

"Make their health and wellbeing a priority. There’s often a sense of shame attached to putting your own needs first when you’re the boss, but it’s impossible to work - let alone lead - effectively without doing so. I got used to turning down invitations to socialise when I was training for a race. These days, I know when to take a rest day if my workload starts to feel overwhelming. Just like you need to take rest days from physical training, you have to give your brain time to decompress after spending lots of time on work."

An effective leader will never…

"Take their teams for granted. We rely on those around us just as much as our team relies on us. For a business to work and everyone in it to do their best, each side must support the other and be working together with one goal in mind."

My role model for leadership is…

"My mum. Growing up, my mum was the person I looked up to the most. From the day I learnt to walk I’ve had to take the long route to get from A to B, and it was her encouragement and belief in me that gave me the confidence to keep going.

"She taught me that it didn’t matter that I went about things differently to my peers; I was just as capable of achieving my goals. Her lessons have definitely shaped me as a leader. As much as possible I try to let go of any preconceptions or biases I might hold towards others, and empower those around me to work in whatever way suits them and their needs."

The one piece of advice I’d give to a new leader is…

"Don’t assume that you don’t deserve your place in the room if you don’t look like the other people in it. I’ve been that person more times than I can count. Whether it’s turning up for a training session at the pool in my splint with all my gadgets, or attending a corporate meeting as the only disabled person in the room - and sometimes the only woman - knowing I’m likely the subject of people's unconscious bias is something I’m used to. It used to intimidate me, but now I know that other people's opinions of me have no actual bearing on my ability to succeed."

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